In this guide, we will explore both primary research (qual and quant) techniques as well as using marketing data which is also referred to as secondary research.
The sections included in this guide include primary research techniques and secondary research techniques.
Primary research techniques
Primary research techniques include surveys, interviews, diary studies and other data collection methods of obtaining opinion and understanding directly from customers.
Alternatives to primary techniques include the use of secondary research and data including using existing marketing data, of which techniques are also included in this guide.
Secondary research techniques: Marketing data
Marketing data is the use of existing data to build a picture of your customers, such as using your database or Facebook Insights.
Which should I use?
The best and most accurate personas are built with a combination of data – this guide will demonstrate the methods and how you can use them in harmony.
In the first section, we explore qualitative and quantitative research techniques for persona research.
In this section on primary research methods, we cover interviews including interview techniques, survey data collection and diary studies.
The advantages of using primary research methods include:
Primary data collection compared to secondary methods is time-consuming and more expensive, but it allows you to accurately create personas.
This guide to help you conduct primary research effectively and in an affordable way.
What you get in is what you get out and the aim is to create accurate, helpful and useful personas. Let's start with ethnography research.
What is ethnography?
Ethnography is the process is observing users understand their behaviour, culture, needs, challenges, desires and developing a product or service based on this depth-insight.
Getting the right person to observe is key and being as involved with them or interrupting them is also very important. Ethnographers observe, nothing more.
They interpret behaviour and can use this insight to improve a product or service. It's important not to be tempted to ask questions, but purely to listen and watch.
Ethnography studies usually involve various research methods such as observation, interviews, surveys and could also include diary studies, though diary-keeping may not be required if you're observing and this alone could be a separate study, along with interviews.
Diary studies usually eliminate the need for meeting with a participant.
What can I use it for?
Ethnography can help with understanding users to create personas and assist in persona research.
It's all about observing your customer in their natural environment, for example observing shoppers in a grocery shop of their choice.
It can be used to help design websites, services and products to meet customer needs and provides a deep understanding compared to conducting surveys on their own.
Short ethnography studies you can do
Great use of ethnography research is when creating personas, personas are best created with depth information and ideally multiple research methods, such as depth-interviews, ethnography and using the data you have in your database.
Ethnography studies can be conducted as part of a multi-method persona research study.
What is it?
An in-depth interview to help you understand what the customer thinks, how they work and how they interact with your business.
Interviews can take place in person, using video messaging platforms like Skype or Google Hangouts or over the phone.
Remote sessions will cost less as participants won’t need to travel to a specific location and you won’t need to hire a meeting room or focus group viewing room.
How to do it?
Interviews should take place with enough time for you to extract as much information as possible, this means that they may be the most expensive form of persona research as incentives need to reflect the length of interview and type of participant you’re interviewing.
But in-depth interviews can be the most useful as you have the opportunity to dig deeper, they work well as an addition to quantitative surveys.
Before you get started it’s best to create a “discussion guide” similar to what you would create for a focus group - essentially the aims of the research to remind you what you’re trying to achieve and discussion prompts.
It’s best to audio or video record the interviews (consent will be needed) and be prepared to take notes (but remember that you can take more notes from the recordings). If it helps you could even have the interviews transcribed.
It’s just a conversation with prompts and as an interviewer, you should definitely be prepared to listen far more than you speak. It’s very important though to make sure you get the insights needed from the interview.
As a general rule allow 30 minutes to one hour for the discussion and it’s best to interview between 5 and 10 people so you can spot key personas.
Any more than 12 might be unnecessary but this depends on the nature of your business e.g. if you have regional differences for example.
How to analyse?
You’re looking for key themes across the various people you’re interviewing, two people may be similar so they could become one persona and would be formed of a mixture of the findings (or themes) from both participants.
This is why it’s important to interview enough people but equally not too many people. As when it comes to personas you’re looking for similarity to prove that indeed these are your customers.
Usually, with any qualitative research, it’s best to read through or listen, taking out various key themes and then reducing them into smaller themes.
Remember you’re interpreting your customers to understand them and create personas that represent them so you’re looking for character traits, similar but also different challenges as you may have several different types of customer personas.
There are some costs that should be considered when running contextual interviews including:
What is it?
Diary studies allow you to understand the interactions your customer has with your business, product or service and your competitors over time.
It allows you to track a customer over time, for example, advertisers use diary studies to understand the interactions customers have with ads.
Diary studies are a great example of in-depth ethnography as they allow you to collect information about your customer over time.
How to do it?
You can use diary studies to understand when customers interact with your brand, how they interact and how often.
Your incentive doesn’t need to be as high as in-person interviews, but you may wish to consider offering at least £25 for a week-long diary study.
One top tip: always over-recruit, with any study longer than 1 session people always drop out.
Recruiting users from your own database should be fairly easy, but make sure you make it easy for participants, such as sending either a Microsoft Word diary template or perhaps using an online form (like Google Docs).
Ask questions about when they interact with your type of business, why they interacted and what happened.
You can also ask questions specific to their life, their work etc. to understand the challenges they face.
Diary studies can sometimes, as well as recording entries on forms, documents and surveys, include an audio or video element.
The end results could be a collection of entries, audio and video recordings, and even cut-outs from newspapers etc.
If you’re a B2B marketing automation software as a service (SaaS) provider, you may wish to understand the challenges facing a marketer or email marketer.
Along with when, why and how they interact with your platform and competitor or similar platforms, as well as understanding their tasks, responsibilities and the other platforms and tools they use too.
How to analyse?
When analysing you’re looking for key trends or key sets of information that can build up a persona, for example:
"Liz, an email marketer who uses your marketing software every day to send promotional emails on behalf of her clients to her database, her employer is increasing their prices and as a result clients are demanding more segmentation and targeting of the emails, which Liz is finding a challenge with the software. She is spending far too long setting up the emails, she is also responsible for a junior email marketer who writes the copy, and is hoping to progress to become more senior in her role and is looking for events and content marketing to help with her career."
By spending time understanding a persons’ day to day life and work you can form themes and conclusions about your customers. Across various diaries, you will see similar challenges and themes emerge to help you create your personas.
Diary studies can be a little time consuming and costly, hard costs include incentivizing participants for staying committed over a longer period of time (compared to taking a one-off survey or interview).
Recruiting participants can either be low cost by using your own database or from at least £50 per person by using a research recruiter.
Incentives for a one-week diary study could involve a £50 Amazon (or other retail vouchers) for completing the full study, or simply £50 cash.
You could offer a bonus for finishing the study in addition to a mid-point incentive (for receiving partial data too).
What is it?
An online blog could involve a customer or participant posting updates either privately or in the public domain, they may be discussing times they are interacting with your brand for example.
A bulletin board is more of a discussion, think of it as a focus group, spread over a longer period of time and online.
As a moderator, you have the opportunity to ask questions and probe for more in-depth answers.
Bulletin boards typical use (and look like) forum software. Blogs would use something similar to WordPress or another blogging platform.
How to do it?
Browsing blog posts published by customers about your product or service may include reviews posted on blogs or other types of content.
As long as they aren’t “sponsored” content, then they can provide some insight into how your business is perceived and the characteristics of the blogger can help you understand your target market.
This would need to be done along with other types of persona research but it can provide some insight to help you build your personas.
Bulletin boards which are more commonly known as forums can be found by searching the web for mentions of your brand or products.
With so many forums on the web, there is insight available into buyers of your products or services, people on various forums may also be discussing their needs and requirements for the service or products you offer.
Forum discussions can provide much-needed information into the challenges your customers face and the type of people who are looking for or buying what you offer.
How to analyse?
By finding trends and quotes (which could also be used in the persona itself), this qualitative user-generated content can provide some essential insight especially into customer types, but due to the fact information may be limited it’s best to combine this with other persona research methods too.
Typically there isn’t a hard cost to using this method.
What is it?
Customer surveys allow you to ask relevant questions to understand your audience, they are a great way of collecting lots of information in mass and can be very cost-effective.
Typical hard costs include incentives and a survey platform.
How to do it?
There are typically a few steps involved when using survey research:
It’s important to ask the right questions, without bias, but also that does not give too much away.
Questions you could ask include:
Questionnaire design tips
It’s important to ask questions in the right way, both to get the information you need and so it’s clear for the customer on how to answer, so the answer is as accurate as possible.
Some key tips include:
Survey distribution and data collection
There are various ways to collect responses which are discussed below.
Online survey – website and email distribution
Simply by adding a survey to your site, social media and by sending an email to your email list can generate a significant number of responses. It’s a low effort too.
Printed survey – instore
If you have physical stores, you may wish to print your survey for people to fill in, but be careful there needs to be a box for respondents to put their surveys in as it may contact personal details.
You may then also need to type up responses for analysis which can be time-consuming. Staff can, however, push the survey
in-store by mentioning it to customers, but data collection may be slow.
Printed Postal survey
This takes time and may cost more, it can be quite a personal approach though, but you’d need to pay for return postage too and again may need to type up answers manually.
Hotjar and similar web intercepts allow you to add short surveys which pop up without much interference to the user journey on the site.
It allows you to regularly collect data with minimal effort. It’s not great for long surveys though, therefore it may not be best for persona research but you could use it to build your survey email list or to recruit for interviews and focus groups in a cost-effective way.
Google Consumer Surveys and Survey Monkey Audience
If you have the budget for it, you could send a survey via Google Consumer Surveys or Survey Monkey Audience, where you can screen for certain types of person and then ask them questions and you pay per response.
Costs are typically a minimum of 10p per response per question.
It is a great way to collect data in a fairly low-cost way, but considering persona research is about understanding your own customers it may not be the best avenue to use.
It does allow for profiling though, so you could potentially find people who use products like yours, rather than direct customers – this itself could be gold dust.
There are many survey platforms that are free or low cost, however, typically you need to pay for a premium plan for more than ten questions and increased numbers of responses.
Free options include
Premium survey tools include:
Using third party panels
Using an online panel to get survey responses can be a fast way to get data quickly, you’ll need to make sure that your survey platform can integrate with the panel so they can monitor completes and incompletes.
Panels charge per complete and handle the incentive too. Panels calculate costs based on feasibility.
Cost per complete can be typically anything from 50p to £2 (and of course much more expensive in many cases) for a survey of around 10-20 questions.
The cost is charged based on the type of person required, the more difficult it is to reach that person the more expensive it will cost.
For example, if you wanted farmers in Scotland, the panels may not have many of those on board and in some cases may even choose to recruit some, these would be niche and therefore be very expensive. Many online panels work on high volume cases and may charge a minimum fee of £500 to £750. Typically, panels will be looking to get 500-2000 responses.
Using your email database, you could build your own opt-in customer panel too, which would just be for surveys. Toluna, Vision Critical and many others offer panel management platforms for those looking to build large research panels.
How to analyse?
Be careful with reading into some statistics, remember you’re just using them to build a picture of your key customers.
You’re looking for similarities in the data, so if lots of people have a degree then one of your personas would have a degree.
Methods of analysis include:
Remember not to infer too much from quantitative surveys which have respondents less than 100, it doesn’t mean you can’t use the data for your personas though, just be careful with interpretation.
If you are likely to struggle with respondent numbers, it’s far better to use depth interviews.
The great thing about quantitative survey tools is that they often produce brilliant charts, which you can usually edit in Spreadsheets.
This should give a clear picture of your customer.
Survey costs may arise from incentives, survey platform use, or use of third party panels.
Surveys are however a cost-effective method of gaining feedback and opinion.
Recommended resource: https://www.surveymonkey.com/mp/how-surveys-help-you-create-buyer-personas/
What is it?
Focus groups are a way of interviewing various people all in on sitting, they allow you to create discussion and see differences between people, in this case, your customers.
By interviewing various customers in one room you can start to see your different customer types, it’s also a little more cost-effective although incentives should still reflect the length of the interview.
We recommend audio or video recording all interviews and focus groups.
Try not to let participants disclose vast amounts of personal information (for example nobody should mention any personal details such as their address or telephone number to the group).
How to do it: checklist
Here is a checklist for you to work through when running focus groups:
*What is recruitment screener?
It’s a series of questions that you ask potential respondents to match them to the correct audience required for the research, when it comes to personas this doesn’t matter too much, you just want to speak to your customers.
As an example though, screening questions could include:
**What is discussion guide?
A discussion guide is a reminder of the topics you want to discuss, it’s highly recommended that you produce this as it forms how your discussion will go and without it, what will you ask?
It also allows you to make notes such as remembering to get participants to sign consent forms.
Some tips on producing a good discussion guide. There are a variety of question types you could consider:
Moderation tips include:
How to analyse?
As with surveys, interviews and diary studies you’re looking for trends in what participants have told you.
Remember to watch/ listen back to the video or recording and consider having it transcribed for more accurate analysis.
Transcription takes time so it’s best to hire a freelancer.
Similar to depth-interviews, costs incurred come from venue, recruitment and incentives which are typically around £50 for a 1-hour session.
Some customers may attend a free lunch, transport expenses paid for or a large discount on your product or service.
Use of marketing data is a great way of helping you to further develop your personas. It helps less with need and challenges but gives you a picture of who they are and their demographics.
What is it?
Using Facebook Audience Insights can help build a bigger picture of your customers.
This is a low budget option if you already extensively use Facebook as part of your social media marketing.
Facebook Audiences provide insight into the users that you can reach on Facebook, such as when you’re using Facebook Advertising.
However, it’s also a great, fast and low-cost way of building personas of the type of customers who may buy your product or service or who are looking for it.
1How does it work?
From the Facebook Audience Insights page, you can then search demographics and filter by selecting certain demographics, you can see the characteristics of the audience.
You can build up persona characteristics such as:
A Moz blog post has highlighted some considerations including:
How to analyse?
By building up the demographics using the filters you will be able to build up some ideas of who your customers are, some examples from the Moz blog article include:
It’s free to access Facebook Audience insights.
What is it?
Marketing data is the data that you collect from your customers and prospects, you may already have a wealth of data which can give you an unrivalled insight to build your personas.
Data types include:
How to do it?
Prospect and salesforce data – use the data you have collected by your marketing team to analyse your customers, if you collect information on their location, job title or hold data on purchase history, then you have such a wealth of information that can easily be filtered in a spreadsheet to reveal your personas.
Google Analytics – In addition to using your marketing data, you can use Google Analytics to understand the customer purchase journey, how customers use your site and where they come from. There is also some information on demographics in Google Analytics which isn’t so well known. This can be useful to ensure your personas match your current site users.
How to review your visitor demographic profiles in Google Analytics
The chart shows that you can see the Male / Female breakdown for your site visitors and you can also see the age breakdown too. It's useful for both B2B and B2C.
It becomes more interesting when you compare it to the profile of traditional customers acquired by other channels - this prompts questions as to whether you are reaching new audiences online or similar audiences.
You can find this data within the Audience reports of Google Analytics, but only if have you enabled it. The chart above shows that it's under the Audience, Demographics section in the left nav. This GA Help page explains how to enable Demographic reporting including:
The source is based on Google owning Ad network Doubleclick from which they're able to share profile information collected by publishers.
The data is linked by cookies or browsers who use Google Accounts. When explaining this you can show that Google Analytics shares the percentage of people who Google can positively identify.
Social media listening and monitoring – by searching on Twitter you can build up a picture of what your customers are saying, their needs and their challenges.
Try various searches that fit your product or service type and see what people are saying about it. Although not best used in isolation, it’s still a great way to help build your personas.
How to analyse?
Using your data, you’re looking for commonalities and large numbers within categories e.g.: You may have job type/ industry etc. so you may find that you have hundreds or thousands of Marketing managers (if you were a marketing agency) and CEO etc. The data can show you the volumes of the different types of people you have.
An example of using marketing data to build a persona includes:
[Name of customer]
“Customer finds the service of competitors slow and found us after searching the web, desperate to find a better alternative” – from Twitter
“Customer has a family, is married and has a high income over £50,000, they use us monthly” – from Marketing data
“Customer uses us monthly to meet targets at work” – from Twitter
Cost of using marketing data to build personas
No additional costs are usually incurred, apart from any costs accrued to the use of various CRMs.
What is it?
Search keywords are the phrases customers are using to find your business in Google.
Whilst this alone doesn’t help you create a full view of your customer, used with other methods such as marketing data and interviews, it provides an insight into how your customers perceive you and how they initially come across you.
How to do it?
Google Keyword Planner is the best tool to use. Go to this blog on Persona Development With Google Data: How Does It Work?
How to Analyse?
It’s as simple as creating a spreadsheet with a list of key phrases, you could highlight similar phrases or group them for understanding.
As keywords/ phrases are so short it’s easy to spot similarities to build up a picture of how customers are finding you on search engines and their thought process into what they feel like they need to type into Google to find you.
As well as developing your personas will help with your SEO too. See the gap analysis spreadsheet for how to incorporate data from Google Analytics:
There may be no hard cost except for the use of tools and platforms that you may use to do your keyword research
There are a variety of tools that can you including research tools, persona building tools, research platforms and analytics tools – many of these have been mentioned in above sections, such as Survey Monkey and Hotjar. There are some tools which can help you visualize personas such as:
This section will cover best practice when it comes to recruiting participants for your persona research.
Incentives should be fair and relevant, consent should always be gained, ideally, Market Research Society (MRS) guidelines will always be followed to support the integrity of research and the research industry.
Incentives must reflect effort and loss, for example, loss of time away from work or reflective of the time required to take part. Incentives should only be paid for full participation but this should be made clear.
Some participants may be happy to participate in return for some free food and drink, highly discounted vouchers for your business or for charitable donations. Think carefully about what might work for your customers.
Consider regional legislation related to prize draws and incentives.
Screeners help you find the appropriate participants for your research. Screeners questions could include demographics, purchase history etc.
Informed consent and privacy
Use of marketing data for research
Be careful to use data responsively, analyzing existing data should also mean that individual responses are anonymous in the overall evaluation
If you need help recruiting participants, look for local market research companies in google search.
If you’d like to recruit participants yourself, you could use classified and job websites such as:
Sketch out your persona
Firstly, try sketching out your persona in these categories:
Customer journey mapping
Journey mapping involves tracking a typical customers journey through the purchase funnel across multiple channels and/or through your site.
You can use gap analysis to inform the customer journey map.
What is it?
Affinity mapping is the process of grouping lots of qualitative information into an affinity diagram.
Interviews and field observations lead to lots of notes and affinity mapping helps you analyse this information to help build your personas.
The focus of the diagram could be:
How to do it?
Use sticky notes, each sticky note is an insight.
Using a similar diagram to the above, you can collect information about the challenges, goals, expectations and needs of your customers.
The diagram is also great not just for field observations and interviews, but elements can be included in surveys and diary studies too – all of which have been discussed in this guide.
Use the data you’ve collected to summarise:
In this section, we take a look at tools which can be used to help with persona research.
For participant recruitment
Tools for screen recording
The table below also shows a number of useful tools including Toluna QuickSurveys and SurveyMonkey Audience which allow you to buy survey respondents.
Mouse tracking/ heatmaps - CrazyEgg
Exit-Intent survey tools and survey tools which allow pop-ups on your site to collect feedback or invite users to take part in research projects:
Building personas is all about customer closeness – it’s about understanding your customer and if you have the time and the resource, it’s best to understand them personally as you possibly can: their likes, dislikes, hobbies and much more. This helps you to build up a picture of the type of people who buy from you.
You would even take the approach of developing a customer closeness or panel programme which fulfils two business needs:
What is a customer closeness programme?
It’s an approach where you meet your customers and spend time with the customer whilst they are doing their normal shopping – such as walking with your customer around a supermarket.
User interviews and user tests can also do the same thing for service and online-based businesses. Sit with them and walk through the process of buying
Is this for me?
Not always – customer closeness programmes work well if you have physical stores and location-based businesses. For service and online businesses, depth interviews work just as well, but you could adapt some of the features to be included too.
How to do this
The first step is to recruit your customer as normal – secondly, ask them to do a pre-task so you receive loads of information about their background.
The pre-tasks pack:
It’s worth asking them to include pictures of them and their family, doing the hobbies they like doing, asking them their political interests. Personas are about the person and good persona projects will involve asking participants to put together a pack of things that the customer collects about themselves. The research used to its full potential gives you a full understanding and in the process, you might also just be creating loyal customers too.
On the day:
Assist them shopping, explain you wish to ask questions as you go around but ask them to almost pretend they aren’t there, but give constant feedback. Gain consent (very important especially considering you have a pack containing personal images and other things about them NOTE: the pack must NOT include personal information such as full names, addresses, contact details etc.). Then, walk with them and ask questions. Take notes if possible.
After the session
Debrief immediately – write notes on a whiteboard, you could even produce an affinity map. Share thoughts with colleagues who may have also done a similar task, share ideas and find trends.
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